05 Apr [PREMIUM] Country Updates- 18-31 March 2021
|Country||Number of COVID-19 cases||Total vaccine doses administered||Vaccine doses administered per hundred people|
|Indonesia||1,505,775||10.77 million (as of 28 March according to Our World in Data)||3.94 (as of 28 March according to Our World in Data)|
|Malaysia||344,018||580,765 (as of 28 March according to Our World in Data)||1.79(as of 28 March according to Our World in Data)|
|Singapore||60,381||1.1 million (as of 23 March according to Our World in Data)||18.96 (as of 23 March according to Our World in Data)|
|Thailand||28,821||102,050 (as of 24 March according to Our World in Data)||0.15 (as of 24 March according to Our World in Data)|
|Vietnam||2,594||44,000 (as of 26 March according to Our World in Data)||0.05 (as of 24 March according to Our World in Data)|
Civilian death toll passes 520 after weekend of bloodshed, drawing renewed international criticism and threats from ethnic armed groups (30 March)
27 March marked Armed Forces Day in Myanmar and the deadliest day since the army seized power on February 1. Soldiers and police embarked on a rampage, killing at least 114 people — including children — in 44 towns and cities across the country, according to a tally by the independent Myanmar Now news outlet. The violence continued over the weekend, with heavy clashes erupting in the country’s borderlands between the army and fighters from Myanmar’s oldest ethnic minority force, the Karen National Union (KNU). Three civilians were killed and 3,000 villagers fled to Thailand when military jets bombed a KNU area, after a KNU force overran an army outpost and killed 10 people. This marks the first time in 20 years that airstrikes have been carried out.
World powers have ramped up their condemnation of the military. United States President Joe Biden said the situation in Myanmar was “terrible,” and described the actions of the military as “absolutely outrageous.” On 29 March, the Biden administration announced the suspension of all diplomatic trade engagement with Myanmar. UN chief Antonio Guterres called for a united global front to pressure the military government. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has called the situation in Myanmar “an unfolding tragedy” that will take time to overcome, and said it was essential for Asean’s credibility, centrality and relevance to have a view, have a position and to be able to offer some constructive assistance to Myanmar.
Adding to the pressure, ethnic armed groups of the northern alliance – Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army issued a statement on 30 March condemning the crackdown and threatened to fight alongside protesters unless the military reined in its violence. The KNU also declared that it will defend itself from government troops and urged the international community “to cut all ties with [Myanmar’s armed forces], including military and economic relationships.”
EU and US sanctions step up pressure on Myanmar military over coup (23 Mar)
On 22 March, the European Union and the United States introduced new sanctions on perpetrators of the Myanmar coup. The EU will impose asset freezes and visa bans on 11 officials of the Tatmadaw. Presently, the bloc already has an arms embargo on Myanmar and has targeted some military officials since 2018 in light of the atrocities committed in the Rakhine State crisis. The latest sanctions by the EU marked the bloc’s most significant response since the 1 February, when the National League of Democracy and its top leaders including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi were ousted and detained respectively.
The US had reacted faster and in the past month have expanded the list of sanctioned entities and individuals as violence escalated. These sanctions targeted not only Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, but also his children, several other military officers and military owned companies. It is important to note that the sanctions imposed by the international community thus far have been targeted, and rightly so. As history has shown, broad, blanket sanctions will only cripple the private sector and harm the people they are meant to help.
Thailand ‘prepared’ to take Myanmar refugees, says Prayuth (29 Mar)
In light of the ongoing violence in Myanmar, thousands of Myanmar people have been driven across the country’s border with Thailand to seek refuge and medical treatment. While most who have left the country are still hiding in forests, Thailand’s foreign ministry has assured that it does not have any policy to turn away refugees.
Some note that Thailand’s representative had attended Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day celebration on 27 March 2021, alongside counterparts from China, India, Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Russia. On the other hand, defense chiefs from 12 different countries including the US, UK and Japan had issued a statement to condemn the military’s violence.
Despite the Thai military’s attendance, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in a statement on Monday, 29 March, said “Where does Thailand support the Myanmar military? I do not understand.” He added that “There is probably no one to support the use of violence against the people.” Prime Minister Prayuth added that while Thailand does not want to have an exodus into their territory, they are cognisant of human rights and have prepared an area for the influx.
The Clubhouse challenge to digital authoritarianism in Thailand (18 Mar)
In recent times, a new mobile application “Clubhouse” has quickly gained popularity with protestors in Thailand calling for democracy. The app, only compatible with Apple’s iOS, was initially used among people in the fields of technology, finance and entrepreneurship. However, prominent political figures and leaders such as Thailand’s Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (founder of the progressive opposition Future Forward party) started using the app.
Clubhouse allows users to directly interact with experts or public figures in an informal setting, with other interested participants listening in. This creates a convenient space for advocacy as protestors can get into a “chatroom” together to participate in real-time interactive ‘gossip-style discussions’. In particular, one room discussing topics deemed taboo in Thai society, such as criticisms of the monarchy, was able to amass over 100,000 followers in a week.
With the popularity of the app on the rise in Thailand, alongside the 2020-2021 protests, the Thai Digital Ministry has warned that if Thai citizens use the app in a way that would break the law, authorities would have no choice but to prosecute them with cybercrime legislation, which can result in five-year jail terms. Already in China, the Clubhouse app has been blocked after being used as a popular platform for discussion on politically sensitive topics.
UMNO not planning to align itself with Bersatu or DAP (27 March)
The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysia’s largest political party, has indicated it will not align itself with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu party in the next general election. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced this at the party’s annual general meeting. He labelled Bersatu as a “dishonest” partner and accused it of trying to “belittle” UMNO. He also dismissed reports that UMNO was forming pre-election alliances with DAP, Anwar’s PKR and Bersatu.
UMNO’s withdrawal of support from Muhyiddin’s National Alliance places Bersatu in a weaker position. The decision to contest separately will see UMNO, Bersatu and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) all compete for the same Malay-Muslim voter-base once the election is called. In response to UMNO’s statement, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said all ministers from the UMNO party in his cabinet will continue to serve, taking “into account the country’s and people’s interest.”
Malaysia’s Election Commission postpones lowering of voting age (25 March)
Malaysia will not be lowering its voting age from 21 to 18 years old as previously scheduled to go into effect in July 2021. This could potentially affect over a million people if a general election is held this year. The Election Commission (EC) said the Movement Control Order had affected its preparation to implement the new rule. In 2019, under the previous Pakatan Harapan government, Parliament had unanimously approved the measure to lower the voting age to 18. The new rule would kick into effect by September 2022 instead, according to the Election Commission. The lowering of the voting age and automatic registration of voters, which was also delayed, would have increased the number of eligible voters by 30%, compared to 2018.
Hundreds of youths gathered outside Malaysia’s parliament to protest the EC’s announcement. Former Youth and Sports Minister and founder of the youth party, Muda, Syed Saddiq, criticised the EC’s statement and said there was “no connection” between the lockdown measures and the implementation of the new rules. Muda announced that it would be lodging a legal challenge against the delay.
Malaysia working with Singapore towards progressively restoring cross-border travel (23 March)
Malaysia and Singapore have agreed to work towards recognising each other’s vaccine certificates, which will aid in facilitating cross-border travel. Both countries have also agreed to allow cross-border travel based on compassionate grounds in the next few months. Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, and Malaysia’s foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein met in Putrajaya to discuss a wide-range of issues including the situation in Myanmar and recovery from the pandemic.
Both foreign ministers also agreed to “progressively restore cross-border travel for other groups of travelers” in addition to the existing Reciprocal Green Lane and the Periodic Commuting Arrangement. Both countries said they would take into account the pandemic situation on both sides and ensure the “public health and safety of the residents of both countries”.
Earlier in March, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations started discussing a common digital vaccine certificate. While the details of the bilateral programme have yet to be ironed out, it could pave the way towards a regional certification.
PM Lee and Jokowi to meet in person for Leaders’ Retreat, possibly in Bintan (25 March)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will meet in person for the Leaders’ Retreat this year, possibly in Bintan. This was announced during a joint press conference in Jakarta on Thursday (March 25) by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi. “This annual meeting signifies the strategic importance of Indonesia-Singapore bilateral relations and provides a platform for both countries to chart the way forward in key areas of cooperation,” said Ms Retno. She revealed three issues to be highlighted – investment cooperation, cautious preparation for reviving the travel and tourism sector and digital economy cooperation.
Indonesia proposes a Singapore-Batam-Bintan ‘travel corridor’ to restart tourism (22 March)
Indonesia is planning to reopen the Riau Islands province, including Batam and Bintan, to foreign tourists from neighbouring countries, according to the Indonesian tourism minister. Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno said the plan is to reopen tourist spots in Nongsa, Batam and Lagoi, Bintan from 21 April onwards. The proposed travel corridor between Singapore, Batam and Bintan is meant for tourists from Singapore to visit Indonesia and not vice versa, according to Uno. Specific attractions with Batam and Bintan will be sealed off for tourists in Singapore and vaccinated domestic tourists. This would put Batam and Bintan ahead of the country’s main tourist spot Bali, which is expected to reopen only in June or July.
Vietnam sees 4.48% growth in Q1, 2021 (29 March)
Vietnam posted 4.48% GDP growth for the first quarter of 2021, higher than the growth rate of 3.68% in Q1 of 2020 but lower than some economist predictions. Manufacturing of electronic equipment, phones and accessories was a large driver of economic growth. The country also saw growth in industry and construction. Foreign investment rose $4.1 billion in the first quarter but authorities raised concerns regarding inflation risks.
Vietnam’s leadership is aiming for around 6% GDP growth this year. The World Bank has projected that Vietnam’s economy will expand by 6.6% for 2021. The country posted its lowest GDP growth figures last year of 2.91% but was one of the few economies in the world that showed expansion despite the pandemic. Vietnam is forecast to outperform most of the region this year. It is seen as an attractive production base amid Sino-American tensions impacting supply chains.
VinFast begins pre-orders of its electric vehicles (EVs) (25 March)
Vietnam’s VinFast is making rapid progress in pushing out its electric vehicles (EVs). The carmaker has opened up preorders for its high-tech EVs with delivery expected by the end of this year. VinFast is also building a network of about 40,000 charging stations across Vietnam by December. Beyond smart electric vehicles, Vinfast is also looking to launch electric scooters and buses. Last year, VinFast that is part of Vietnam’s largest conglomerate Vingroup, sold about 30,000 vehicles and has forecast more than 45,000 car sales for 2021.